Best history museums to visit in Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is a city known for its rich cultural heritage and vibrant history. Stepping into its numerous history museums feels like embarking on a captivating journey through time. From the fascinating tales of early settlers to the captivating stories of pivotal events in American history, these museums offer an immersive and educational experience for visitors.

In this article, we will explore some of the best history museums to visit in Chicago, each with its own unique collection and narrative. Whether you’re interested in the city’s architectural marvels, its immigrant communities, or its contributions to science and industry, Chicago’s history museums provide a window into the past, allowing you to uncover the stories and achievements that have shaped this remarkable city.

So, prepare to delve into the rich tapestry of Chicago’s history as we highlight the must-visit museums that every history enthusiast should explore.

If you want to visit other historical tourist attractions in Chicago, other than museums, here I made a list of them.

The Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum, formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society (CHS), is a museum dedicated to studying and interpreting the history of Chicago. Founded in 1856, it has been located in Lincoln Park since the 1930s. The museum’s complex, built in 1932 and expanded in 1972 and 1988, showcases exhibitions that explore both Chicago and American history.

The museum’s main structure, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was built in 1932 with the goal of creating more exhibition space. It has since been expanded twice, with additions in 1972 and 1988. The 1988 expansion features expanded galleries, a museum store, and a public café. The museum’s exhibitions draw primarily from its own collection, which includes approximately 22 million artifacts.

One of the museum’s notable exhibitions is “Chicago: Crossroads of America,” a 16,000-square-foot space that explores the city’s development and its impact on American history. Another exhibition, “Facing Freedom,” examines eight American conflicts related to freedom from the 1850s to the 1970s.

The museum also highlights Abraham Lincoln’s election, leadership during the Civil War, and assassination through the Abraham Lincoln alcoves and the adjoining Portrait Gallery. Other exhibitions, such as “Sensing Chicago,” cater to children and encourage them to use their senses to learn about the past. The museum’s restored dioramas depict Chicago’s transformation from a frontier outpost to a bustling city during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In addition to its permanent exhibitions, the museum features temporary exhibits covering a range of topics, including art, LGBTQ+ history, and fashion history. The museum actively involves the public in shaping its exhibits through crowdsourcing projects, allowing visitors to suggest ideas and vote on future exhibition assignments.

The Chicago History Museum is also home to significant artifacts such as the first passenger car from the 1893 ‘L’ system, which transported visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition. The museum’s research library holds a vast collection of books, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and photographs related to Chicago’s history.

It also houses a costume collection with over 50,000 pieces, including couture garments, items from prominent Chicago designers, and clothing worn by notable residents.

To further engage the public, the museum offers various programs, publications, and online resources. Its collaborative effort, the Encyclopedia of Chicago, provides both print and online editions. The museum’s Chicago Fire mobile app offers a comprehensive exploration of the Great Chicago Fire, featuring photos, landmarks, and GPS-guided tours.

The museum also publishes Chicago History magazine, which delves into the city’s complex past and the individuals who have shaped it. Furthermore, the museum has digitized over 50,000 images as part of Explore Chicago Collections.

Each year, the Chicago History Museum honors influential Chicagoans and organizations through its Making History Awards. These awards recognize the contributions and achievements of individuals and groups who have played a significant role in shaping the city’s history.

The Chicago Maritime Museum

The Chicago Maritime Museum, established in 1982 and officially opened in June 2016, is dedicated to preserving and exploring Chicago’s maritime heritage. Housed in the Bridgeport Art Center, the museum offers an 8,000-square-foot space featuring collections storage, a resource library, and a permanent exhibit hall.

Through artifacts, models, and ephemera, the museum tells the story of Chicago as a maritime city and highlights the historical significance of its waterways.

Designed by architect Dirk Lohan, the museum provides visitors with a chronological journey through Chicago’s maritime history. From the French fur traders to steam-powered vessels, modern commercial ships, recreational sailing, and the renowned Ralph and Rita Frese canoe collection, the museum showcases the city’s maritime traditions.

Notable attractions include a dive suit used during the Eastland disaster rescue efforts, a model of the David Dows, the only five-masted schooner on the Great Lakes, and a replica of the USS Wolverine, an aircraft carrier used for naval pilot training in WWII on Lake Michigan.

The museum also features displays on recreational boating and the history of the Chicago Mackinac Race. One exhibit highlights the record-breaking journey of Dick Jenning’s Pied Piper crew in the 1987 race. The museum’s sleek design, created by Dirk Lohan, has garnered praise for its patron-friendly layout.

Located at 1200 W. 35th Street in the Bridgeport Art Center, the museum sits on the river level and offers free parking. The building, formerly the Spiegel Catalogue Warehouse, overlooks Bubbly Creek. As a hub for programs and discussions related to Chicago’s waterways, the museum serves as a gathering place and repository for scholarly research publications.

Overall, the Chicago Maritime Museum preserves the maritime traditions of Chicago and educates visitors about the city’s significant role in the maritime industry throughout history.

The Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) is a renowned museum located in Chicago, Illinois. Situated in Jackson Park, between Lake Michigan and The University of Chicago, the museum is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, which was originally built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Established in 1933 during the Century of Progress Exposition, the museum was endowed by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and supported by the Commercial Club of Chicago.

With over 2,000 exhibits spread across 75 major halls, the MSI offers a wide range of educational and interactive experiences for visitors. One of the notable exhibits is a full-size replica coal mine, providing visitors with a glimpse into the coal mining industry.

Another captivating attraction is the German submarine U-505, captured during World War II. It is one of only six German submarines seized by the Allies and the only one on display in the Western Hemisphere. The U-505 serves as both a popular exhibit and a memorial to the casualties of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The museum’s Henry Crown Space Center is home to various space-related exhibits, including the Apollo 8 spacecraft. This spacecraft carried the first mission beyond low earth orbit to the Moon, allowing its crew to witness the Earth as a whole and explore the Moon up close.

The center also features Scott Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 spacecraft and a lunar module trainer. Additionally, visitors can enjoy the unique experience of watching shows in the only domed theater in Chicago, with a screen made of perforated aluminum for optimal sound distribution.

For those interested in agriculture and modern technology, the “FarmTech” exhibit showcases the use of GPS systems and other advanced techniques in farming. It includes a collection of farming equipment, such as tractors and combine harvesters, as well as a greenhouse and a demonstration of the various uses of soybeans and cows.

Transportation enthusiasts will appreciate the museum’s transportation gallery, which houses models of historic ships and racing cars. The Great Train Story is a remarkable 3,500-square-foot HO-scale model railroad that recounts the story of transportation from Chicago to Seattle. Visitors can also view replicas of significant locomotives, including Stephenson’s Rocket and the 999 Empire State Express steam locomotive.

The MSI offers a diverse range of exhibits catering to different age groups. Younger children can enjoy attractions like the “Swiss Jollyball,” the world’s largest pinball machine, and the “Idea Factory,” a water table play area for toddlers. The museum also features the enchanting Fairy Castle, a doll’s house created by silent-film star Colleen Moore.

In addition to its permanent exhibits, the MSI hosts temporary and traveling exhibitions that usually require separate admission fees. Past exhibitions have included Titanic: The Exhibition, Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, Game On (exploring the history of video games), and Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius.

The museum also organizes special seasonal displays like Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, featuring Christmas trees from various cultures.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago offers a wealth of educational and engaging experiences for visitors of all ages. With its commitment to showcasing both permanent and temporary displays, the MSI continues to inspire curiosity and foster a love for learning among its visitors.

The Field Museum of Natural History

The Field Museum of Natural History, also known as The Field Museum, is a renowned natural history museum in Chicago, Illinois. It is recognized as one of the largest museums of its kind worldwide. The museum is highly regarded for its exceptional educational and scientific programs, as well as its extensive collections of scientific specimens and artifacts.

The museum’s permanent exhibitions, drawing up to 2 million visitors annually, offer a diverse range of displays. Visitors can explore fossils, current cultures from around the globe, and interactive programming that highlights urgent conservation needs. The museum owes its name to its first major benefactor, Marshall Field, the famous department-store magnate. Its collections and origins trace back to the artifacts showcased at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, the Field Museum maintains a program of temporary and in-house produced exhibitions. Its professional staff curates over 24 million specimens and objects, forming the foundation for the museum’s scientific research programs.

These collections encompass a wide spectrum of biodiversity, including gems, meteorites, fossils, and cultural artifacts from various cultures worldwide. The museum’s library houses an extensive collection of books, journals, and photo archives that support academic research and exhibit development.

The Field Museum’s academic faculty and scientific staff actively participate in field expeditions, biodiversity research, cultural studies, and student training across all continents. Their work is closely intertwined with public programming, exhibitions, and educational initiatives.

Among the museum’s notable exhibits are Animal exhibitions and dioramas that provide an up-close look at different habitats and feature infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo and the Mfuwe man-eating lion. Evolving Planet showcases the evolution of life on Earth over 4 billion years, featuring fossils from various eras.

Inside Ancient Egypt offers insights into the life of ancient Egyptians, including human mummies and mummified animals. The Ancient Americas exhibition spans 13,000 years of human history, covering diverse societies across the Western Hemisphere. The exhibit highlights the cultural and economic progression of the region through six displays.

The museum’s cultural exhibitions include sections on Tibet, China, Africa, and Pacific Islands, showcasing traditional clothing, artifacts, and cultural practices. Additionally, the Field Museum houses an authentic 19th-century Māori Meeting House from New Zealand.

The museum’s collections are utilized extensively in these exhibits, with significant contributions from notable researchers and curators. For example, the Pacific Northwest collection and Arctic Peoples hall showcase the early work of Franz Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam.

The Cyrus Tang Hall of China offers insights into Chinese history and culture through a wide range of artifacts. The Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories exhibition presents Native American culture, history, and contemporary challenges using approximately 400 artifacts.

The Grainger Hall of Gems displays a remarkable collection of diamonds, gems, and a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window. The Hall of Jades focuses on Chinese jade artifacts spanning thousands of years. The Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies houses a large collection of fossil meteorites.

A highlight of the museum is Sue, the largest T. rex specimen discovered at the time of its unveiling in 2000. This well-preserved fossil, named after its discoverer Sue Hendrickson, provides valuable insights into the life and history of the species.

The Field Museum Library, established in 1893, serves as a valuable resource for researchers, scientists, students, and the general public. With a focus on various scientific disciplines, the library’s collections consist of over 275,000 volumes, including books, journals, and photo archives.

Overall, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago stands as a world-class institution that combines educational exhibits, scientific research, and cultural exploration to enhance our understanding of the natural world and human history, fostering a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life on Earth.

The National Hellenic Museum

The National Hellenic Museum, located in Chicago’s Greektown, is a prominent institution celebrating the cultural contributions of Greeks and Greek-Americans. Established as the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, it underwent a modernization program and moved to its current building in December 2011. The museum’s official opening on December 10th, 2011, marked a significant event within the local Greek community.

With a focus on ancient and contemporary Greek culture and the Greek-American immigrant experience, the National Hellenic Museum has become a cherished fixture. Its extensive collection spans thousands of years of Greek history, showcasing artifacts such as handmade textiles, traditional costumes, musical instruments, and original photographs related to the Greek-American immigrant experience.

The museum’s Library and Archives house over 10,000 books, serial publications, and documents, including rare volumes and historic manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries. The archival collections include handwritten letters, early-modern manuscripts, and one of the largest archives of Greek-language newspapers in the United States.

Throughout the year, the National Hellenic Museum hosts a variety of exhibitions covering Greek history, culture, and art. Some current exhibitions include “Lives Afloat: The Greek Refugee Crisis through the lens of Tasos Markou 2015-2017,” “George Kokines: Layers Revealed,” “Change: The Story of Coins,” “Reaching for the American Dream: The Legacy of Greek Immigration,” and “The Story of Greek Independence.”

The museum’s Oral History Project aims to document the Greek immigrant experience in America by recording and preserving the life stories of individuals of Greek descent. With over 300 individual histories as of 2015, the project provides valuable insights into the Greek-American community’s journey.

In addition to weekly and monthly events, such as cocktail receptions, brunches, and meet-and-greet gatherings, the National Hellenic Museum hosts marquee events each year. The Annual Gala is a signature fundraising event featuring dinner, music, auctions, performances, speeches, and cocktails. Another notable event is “Kouzina,” where Chicago-area chefs come together to showcase Mediterranean cuisine alongside music and cocktails at the museum.

The National Hellenic Museum stands as a vibrant institution that preserves and celebrates Greek heritage while fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Greek culture among visitors from all backgrounds.

The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa

The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa (ISAC) is a renowned research center and archaeology museum at the University of Chicago. Established in 1919 as the Oriental Institute, it was founded by professor James Henry Breasted with funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr.

ISAC conducts interdisciplinary research on ancient civilizations in the Near East and maintains a facility called Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. The institute also houses an impressive collection of artifacts related to ancient civilizations, which are exhibited on campus in Hyde Park, Chicago.

The institute’s distinctive Art-Deco/Gothic building, designed by Mayers Murray & Phillip and completed in 1930, is located at the corner of 58th Street and University Avenue. It features a notable tympanum titled “East Meets West,” sculpted by Ulric Ellerhusen, depicting figures and symbols from the East and West.

ISAC’s museum showcases artifacts from excavations in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Among the notable pieces are the Megiddo Ivories, treasures from Persepolis, a collection of Luristan Bronzes, a colossal human-headed winged bull from Khorsabad, and a monumental statue of King Tutankhamun. The museum offers free admission, encouraging visitors to make donations.

In addition to its museum, ISAC serves as a hub for active research on the ancient Near East. The building houses a library, classrooms, faculty offices, and the Suq gift shop. Institute scholars have conducted numerous excavations in the Fertile Crescent and have contributed to our understanding of the origins of human civilization.

The institute’s significant publication project includes the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which provides a vital cultural reference. Other ongoing projects include the Chicago Hittite Dictionary and the Chicago Demotic Dictionary. ISAC also oversees Chicago House in Luxor, which conducts the Epigraphic Survey to document and study historical sites and manages conservation efforts at various locations.

The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa stands as a hub of academic excellence, advancing our knowledge of ancient civilizations through research, education, and the preservation of cultural heritage.

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Chicago is a dedicated institution that preserves and explores African-American history, culture, and art. Founded in 1961 by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, Charles Burroughs, Gerard Lew, Eugene Feldman, Bernard Goss, Marian M. Hadley, and others, the museum emerged to celebrate and highlight black culture, which was often overlooked at the time.

With an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, the DuSable Museum became a valuable resource for African-American education and a hub for social activism.

In 1993, the museum expanded with a new wing named after the late Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. This addition features a permanent exhibit on Washington’s life and political career.

The museum also serves as a memorial to Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, considered the first non-native settler of Chicago. The collection boasts notable artifacts such as activist Ida B. Wells’ desk, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s violin, and the Charles Dawson Papers.

With a collection of 13,000 artifacts, books, photographs, art objects, and memorabilia, the DuSable Museum has amassed a diverse range of items. These include relics from the slavery era, artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries, and archival materials.

The African-American art collection features works by renowned artists such as Charles White, Richard Hunt, Archibald Motley Jr., and Romare Bearden. The museum’s exhibitions cover various significant periods and events in African-American history, including the journey to freedom, the Harold Washington story, the Chicago 1919 race riot, and the experiences of African-American women in World War I.

The museum building, designed by D.H. Burnham and Company, houses the main lobby, Thomas Miller mosaics honoring the founders, a 466-seat auditorium for cultural events, a gift shop, and a research library. With its expansion in 1993, the museum now occupies 50,000 square feet of exhibition space. Funding for the museum is partially supported by a Chicago Park District tax levy.

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center stands as a significant institution that preserves, educates, and celebrates African-American history and culture, serving as a vital resource for the community and beyond.

The Polish Museum of America

The Polish Museum of America, located in Chicago’s historical Polish Downtown neighborhood, is one of the oldest ethnic museums in the United States. Established in 1935, it houses a growing collection of Polish artifacts, artwork, and embroidered folk costumes.

The museum is housed within the headquarters of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, featuring impressive architectural elements blending Classical Revival and Art Deco styles.

The museum showcases Polish and Polish-American art through its exhibitions, publications, and public programs. It collaborates with other institutions to promote Polish history and culture. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, and lithographs from renowned Polish artists. Additionally, the museum presents exhibits on Polish folk costumes, crafts, maritime history, military artifacts, and prominent figures like Tadeusz Kościuszko and Helena Modjeska.

Notable items in the museum’s collection include a sleigh gifted by Polish King Stanislaus Leszczynski, sculptures by Stanislav Szukalski, and original drawings by Count Thaddeus von Zukotynski. The library and archives at the museum provide valuable resources for researchers and those interested in Polish and Polish-American history.

The museum holds the painting “Pulaski at Savannah” by Stanisław Kaczor Batowski, which won first place at the Century of Progress Fair in 1933. It also possesses a rare portrait of Bishop Edward Kozłowski, an important figure in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

A significant attraction is the Ignace Paderewski Room, filled with items donated by Paderewski’s sister and the Buckingham Hotel. Interestingly, some claim the museum, particularly the Paderewski Room, is haunted, with reports of ghostly phenomena investigated by the Ghost Research Society.

The Polish Museum of America stands as a cultural gem, preserving and sharing the rich heritage of Polish history, art, and traditions within the vibrant city of Chicago.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications

The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) in Chicago is a prominent institution dedicated to preserving and presenting the rich history of radio and television. With a mission to educate, entertain, and inform, the museum offers a range of resources, including archives, exhibits, screenings, publications, and online access.

As one of only three museums in the United States solely focused on media broadcast history, the MBC stands out as a valuable resource for enthusiasts and researchers alike.

The lobby features the impressive Media Tower, a signature piece commissioned by museum founder Bruce Dumont. Created by artist Mark Patsfall over six years, the tower serves as a time capsule, housing radios, televisions, and other equipment, accompanied by vintage TV clips displayed on 27 video monitors.

One of the highlights at the museum is an extensive section devoted to the iconic show, Saturday Night Live (SNL). Visitors can explore scripts, personal handwritten notes to producer Lorne Michaels from legendary comedians like Bill Murray and Steve Martin, as well as memorable costumes, including the renowned Land Shark costume inspired by Jaws.

The exhibit also showcases Steve Martin’s King Tut costume, which featured plastic jeweled detailing and black patent leather shoes, making it one of the most expensive and iconic episodes in SNL history.

The Chicago Television Gallery immerses visitors in nostalgic memories of vintage broadcasts. Displays include props, memorabilia, and costumes from beloved shows such as Bozo’s Circus and I Love Lucy. Vintage console TVs, like the iconic 1951 Zenith with its round screen, and the futuristic sets resembling those from The Jetsons, offer a glimpse into the evolution of television technology.

The Radio Hall of Fame showcases a range of historical artifacts, including portable radios from the 1960s and 1970s, vintage microphones from the 1920s, and notable items like Jack Benny’s violin and Charlie McCarthy’s ventriloquist dummies.

The display also features an AP newswire machine, which includes the original bulletin reporting President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, evoking powerful memories for those who experienced that momentous event.

For enthusiasts unable to visit in person, the museum provides online access to its archives, featuring vintage commercials, footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention held in Chicago, and the program “Beat the Drums,” which focuses on the 1960 Illinois Primary and emphasizes the importance of voting.

With its diverse offerings, the MBC is a must-visit for vintage TV and radio fans. While the museum’s physical layout may be overwhelming, its online archives and membership options offer convenient ways to explore and engage with classic broadcasts. The museum’s dedication to preserving artifacts and accepting donations adds to its uniqueness, making it a valuable institution for media history enthusiasts.

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